Summer 1998, Vol. 1, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 1, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
Promise Keepers

Charitable Choice

McCaughey Babies

Islam in Virginia

The Pope in Cuba

Patriarch's Visit

Religion in a Cold Climate

Clinton Scandal

Religion and the Post-Welfare State: An Untold Story
by Peter Dobkin Hall

Over the past quarter century, deep changes in religious life and public policy have converged in ways that have transformed both. But aside from some attention to the increasing significance of spirituality and the growing political activism of religious conservatives, the news media have generally failed to grasp the scale and scope of what may be the most important and fundamental alteration in the character of American public life since the disestablishment of religion in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

What are these changes? In religion, they involve not only intensified political engagement (including the broadening of what had been a regional movement into a national one), but also shifts in the arenas and forms of worship. Denominational structures are in eclipse. Congregations are now only one of many settings in which believers practice their beliefs. Clergy are as likely to be called to ministries in care-giving, service provision, and agency management as in traditional pastorates. On the public policy side, the barriers separating church and state have been swept aside as education, health, and human services tasks, once regarded as federal government responsibilities, have been shifted to states and localities and into the hands of private-sector––often faith-based––actors.

Why have these changes gone largely unnoticed? Since organized religion and faith communities have a long history of commitment to the needs of the dependent and disabled, the increasing importance of faith-based service provision has not been regarded as anything new or different. But there are other reasons, the most important of which have to do with the architecture of public perception. Because for more than half a century we have looked to Washington as the center and source of power, influence, and change, we are simply not equipped to monitor or assess large-scale shifts when they begin to unfold elsewhere. Information flows from the center outward, not from the periphery to the center.

Equally important is the fact that the reporters who cover politics and policy are not sensitive to or particularly interested in religion, while the reporters who cover the denominational and congregational activities conventionally supposed to comprise the sum and substance of religious life, are unprepared to engage the complexities of emergent social welfare policy. These gaps in media capacity are significant at a time when the overhaul of the social service infrastructure relies increasingly not only on traditional kinds of faith-based organizations to serve the needs of the dependent and disabled, but also on publicly funded secular agencies, many of them run by clergy, members of religious orders, and faith communities.

Despite the formidable barriers supposed to have existed between church and state, governments––particularly on the state and municipal level––have been contracting with religious bodies for more than a century. Orphaned children, nominally public charges, long have been placed in institutions operated by denominations and religious orders and, more recently, in faith-based foster-care agencies.

In the 1960s, government funding of faith-based health and human services activities grew enormously. Not only did established groups like the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities become major recipients of funds under federal social programs, the Great Society’s War on Poverty, with its agenda of community empowerment, began funneling economic development, housing, education, and other funds to African-American congregations and to secular corporations––particularly Community Development Corporations (CDCs)––that they controlled.

The deinstitutionalization of the mentally disabled, which began in the late 1960s, enormously increased the role of faith-based service provision. When the federal courts mandated care for the retarded and the mentally ill in "least restrictive" community settings, the states subject to these consent decrees turned to nonprofit service providers. Traditional secular and religious social agencies were reluctant to take on this task, but––thanks to the Second Vatican Council’s encouragement of social ministries by members of religious orders––there was a ready supply of deeply religious men and women ready to take on some of the most arduous care-giving challenges.

It didn’t take long for the names of Father Bruce Ritter and Covenant House to become staples of the broadcast and print media––whether portrayed heroically, as they were when in ascent, or villainously, when the Covenant House sexual scandal broke. But hardly any reporter grasped either the extent to which this ministry to troubled youth was part of an international human-services empire, largely supported by public monies, or the extent to which this kind of publicly funded faith-based service provision was becoming common throughout the United States. At its height, Covenant House was running an annual budget of $100 million. Only Charles Sennott, the New York Post reporter who broke the scandal, understood the larger implications and, as his 1992 book, Broken Covenant: The Secret Life of Father Bruce Ritter, makes clear, it was an uphill battle even to get his editors to publish the bare facts of the story, much less the questions it raised about faith-based service provision.

Covenant House was, in fact, only a detail in a far bigger picture of privatized faith-based service provision. But this story––particularly the national growth of a multi-billion-dollar group home industry––went unreported. Some reporters, taking note of the growing ranks of homeless people, investigated the impact of court-ordered de-institutionalization of the mentally impaired, usually focusing on the failure of state governments to establish community-based treatment and care. But hardly any noticed the extent to which the states were fulfilling these responsibilities, and the extent to which they were doing so through agencies run either by religious groups or by clergy and members of religious orders called to secular managerial or care-giving ministries.

This is no small line item. Although reliable figures are elusive, it appears that the group home industry has represented the largest outlay of public funds for any non-defense-related purpose since the construction of the interstate highway system. In Connecticut, for example, nearly 90 per cent of the state’s entire economic development budget for the period 1985-1992––a quarter of a billion dollars––was used for acquiring and renovating group home properties, the lion’s share going to a single politically connected consortium of for-profit and nonprofit firms, many of them faith-based. But when reporters for the Hartford Courant, tipped off by the release of a secret report compiled by the state’s office of legislative services, brought these facts to the attention of the public, the story was not picked up by other papers, either in Connecticut or in nearby New York. (The story went unreported elsewhere even when the Courant revealed that the chairman of Connecticut’s Democratic State Committee, who ran a chain of group homes as a profitable sideline to his legal practice, had massively defrauded the state.)

To be sure, the group home story was not entirely ignored. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Michael Winerip wrote a moving, if highly partisan, series of columns on the subject for the New York Times that became the basis for his 1994 book, 9 Highland Road: Sane Living for the Mentally Ill. More recently, some attention has been devoted to faith-based social-service empires like that controlled by former Congressman (Rev.) Floyd Flake, as well as to the litigation arising from use of public education and human services funds by the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community at Kiryas Joel in upstate New York. In addition, the local news sections of daily papers throughout the country have reported on litigation between religious groups and zoning authorities. But reporters have generally failed to pursue the ways in which these stories fit into a larger pattern of fundamental institutional transformation.

The failure to see the larger significance of the increasingly frequent zoning battles involving churches––even when they led to landmark court decisions such as last summer’s overturning of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by the United States Supreme Court––is a particularly telling example of the inability of the press to grasp the significance of convergent changes in religion and public policy. Historically, places of worship have been allowed to locate almost anywhere, free from the restrictions (such as off-street parking requirements) imposed on other property owners, because traditional Sabbath-day devotional activities posed minimal burdens on the neighborhoods in which they were located and because planners assumed that most congregations drew their members from the neighborhoods in which they were located.

Today, places of worship regardless of creed have become platforms for an astonishing range of educational and social services. Church lounges serve as meeting places for self-help groups. Parish houses have been converted into child daycare centers and day schools. As social services have become more central to the ministries and finances of congregations––many of them urban bodies with declining memberships––municipal planners have noted an alarming growth in acquisitions by churches of adjoining properties not only to house service provision activities but also for church-sponsored economic development activities (job training and commercial enterprises), affordable housing, and other publicly funded initiatives.

Careful search of news databases turns up hundreds of reports of public hearings and court fights relating to churches and other faith-based entities. But the news media have yet to see these as symptomatic of more profound and far-reaching changes in religion and public policy.

The failure of the media to attend to the technicalities of community-based human services provision, subtle changes in the nature of social ministries, and the minutiae of land-use litigation is understandable given the information infrastructure in the late twentieth century and the scant preparation reporters receive for dealing with religion. Still, it is surprising that when welfare reform became the battle cry of Republican congressional revolutionaries in the mid-1990s, so little attention was given to the body of ideas on which they were basing their programs.

Journalist/historian Marvin Olasky’s Tragedy of American Compassion (1992) and Renewing American Compassion (1995) became the Old and New Testaments of right-wing welfare reform after receiving glowing accolades from Newt Gingrich, William Bennett, Ariana Huffington, and other leading conservative glitterati. In these volumes, Olasky sets forth a reinterpretation of the history of American social welfare policies that is unabashedly rooted in a religious vision of social change, focusing on the need to transform values and behavior rather than social conditions to break the cycle of welfare dependency.

Had journalists discerned this religious vision and understood the degree to which it led directly to the landmark Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996––which eliminated legal obstacles to the awarding of federal human services contracts to faith-based providers and mandated the availability of religious alternatives in service provision ("charitable choice")––the public would be in a far better position to grasp the astonishing but largely misunderstood institutional revolution that has taken place over the past decade.

Faith communities themselves would benefit from reporting that is informed by real knowledge of both public policy and religion. Although elements of the religious world have been actively involved on both sides of welfare reform, its implications remain largely unknown to those pursuing traditional pulpit ministries, congregational and denominational governing bodies, and people in the pews. Even as they participate in making incremental decisions about the use of church properties, they remain generally unaware and uninformed of how the choices they make are subtly but unmistakably altering the nature of religious practice and the role of religion in public life.

Finally, legislators, jurists, and policy makers at every level of government urgently need the kind of grounded and searching investigation of this unfolding story that only first-rate journalism can provide. The majority of public decision makers, even on the conservative side, have no real basis for judging the arguments of the special interest groups and lobbyists who clamor for their attention. While they may believe that they are backing policies beneficial to organized religion, because they have no clear sense of how these are actually likely to affect a religious universe which, in its increasing diversity and complexity, little resembles anything in their experience, their efforts may, in the end, have quite the opposite effect.

Many clergy and laity are in fact deeply concerned about the crumbling barriers between church and state. Looking at the disastrous consequences to secular non-profits of a half-century of large-scale government funding, which has transformed a once voluntary sector into a highly regulated, commercialized, quasi-governmental domain, they worry about the ways in which such dependency may affect the freedom that American religion has traditionally enjoyed. They worry less about a "culture of disbelief" whose journalistic products marginalize religion than about a culture of ignorance that fails to provide them with vitally important information about how changes in the secular world impact on religion and vice-versa.